Q&A: Glass Cannons

So is a “glass cannon” (i.e. Somebody who can dish out a lot of damage, but can’t take much in return) really possible? Or can you really not cause significant impact if you aren’t physically strong/conditioned enough to take a hit?

Not really. It might be more accurate to say, humans are, by nature, glass cannons, but I’ll come back to this in a second.

For those unfamiliar, a glass cannon is a build, usually from RPGs, where you minmax a character to have a very high damage output at the cost of any defensive options.

The problem is, that’s not how people really work. You can’t trade outgoing damage for durability in the real world.

RPGs, and storytelling in general, tend to exaggerate the differences between people. Yes, one person may be healthier or tougher than another, but not to the point where they can shrug off bullets.

So, let’s look at why this exists at all. Combat in games is, at best, an abstraction. You’re working with a specific amount of hit points or some other concrete limit to the amount of damage a character can take. If everyone is forced into playing the exact same way, that will result in an uninteresting experience, particularly in a game where you’re including multiple players simultaneously.

Supporting distinct builds to aid with unique play styles can go a long way towards keeping combat interesting, and under the best circumstances, ensure that everyone can contribute and that they should have some unique options based on their choices.

This kind of game design can easily lead something called, “the trinity.” A trinity is three (or more) players, split between tanking, damage, and support roles. Tanks draw the attention of the foes. Damage (or DPS (Damage Per Second) in most video games) actually kills the, now distracted, foes. Support heal and otherwise enhance the other participants. Depending on game design, there’s a lot of opportunities to blend across these roles. For example, the Tank may also have the ability to buff other characters, or the Support may have additional crowd control options. But, the short version is, it’s built around the idea of having a character who can take a beating, and a cadre of fragile characters focused on dealing significant damage.

(Yes, I know the trinity is usually expressed as Tank/Healer/DPS.)

This is where the glass cannon excels (and the only place it really exists). Even without a tank, you’re still dealing with an abstract combat system, where you’re trying to reduce the opponent’s hit points to zero before they do the same. In many games, saying, “screw defense,” and stacking damage output is a viable (if sometimes difficult) strategy. So long as you can reduce the opponent’s HP to zero before they can do the same to you, it’s a win. (This practice is sometimes called a Damage Race, in case you’re wondering.)

In fact, with some games, forgoing defense can result in massive bonuses that, in the hands of a skilled player, can be substantially more valuable than the sacrificed defense. This is especially true of games with multiple defensive systems, where you’re trading one form of defense for another while still increasing outgoing damage.

The problem is, when it comes to real combat, none of this matters. You’re not going to be dodging bullets, or hitting eleven times as hard because you’ve got a flanking bonus. You’re also not going to be five times tougher than someone you’re facing. If your opponent collapses your lung with a well placed sword strike, that’s it, you’re down.

This is why these kinds of abstractions exist, by the way. When you’re in combat, knowing what’s been injured is what matters. Even blood loss which, I guess, you could argue is, “kinda like,” HP, is still an injury, with its own effects. Trying to calculate realistic injuries with a D20 at 3am just isn’t going to be fun, so instead we get an abstract, “damage,” value. That’s far easier to manage on paper, and since all of the combat is an abstraction anyway, the players are allowed to tell their own story with it.

Fast forward 40 years, and we’re now crunching numbers on computers. It’s way easier to calculate realistic injuries, but we still don’t because, “hey, this is more fun than realizing your character is hemorrhaging internally, will be dead in under an hour, but you can’t actually do anything except hope someone swings by and helps.” Characters suffer damage, and we get on with our day. It also fits with the kinds of heroic fantasies we’re buying in to.

When you create a glass cannon, you’re playing a character who’s hyper lethal, but is still inhumanly durable. You’ve chosen that instead of a character who’s traded some of that extra lethality for even more resilience. Really, strip the surface off of most RPGs and you’re playing a superhero (or villain). (Yes, even in high fantasy settings.) There’s nothing wrong with that per-say. It’s an aspect of the genre since the beginning; whether you trace it back to Robert E. Howard and Fritz Lieber, or Tolkien.

If that was the question, “can you have a superhero who’s a glass cannon?” Yes. Absolutely. You can create a character who has offensive powers or capacities, but has no enhanced defenses. Arguably characters like The Punisher would fall under this header. If you have a setting with superheroes, any of your non-powered characters will be glass cannons by default. They can’t soak off a bullet and keep on going, but the firearms or martial arts they use can absolutely mess up their foes.

Getting punched through a wall, or shot in the head will put them down, however.

Humans are incredibly resilient creatures; we’ve just gotten very good at killing one another.

-Starke

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5 thoughts on “Q&A: Glass Cannons”

  1. This comment might go beyond the scope of the question.
    If you think laterally – yes, you can. It depends on the narrative you have going, but the archetype can be preserved.

    For example. In modern times, a human with a gun but without armor could deal a lot of damage but go down just as easily. And it could be exagerrated – if the person is a child, or physically disabled, etc.

    Does the DPS have to be literal? If no, you can have, say, a ‘hacker’ archetype. Oracle – Batgirl – comes to mind: she wields immence power, from her network. Joker of Mass Effect: physically frail, but a crack pilot and dangerous at the helm of Normandy.

    Does the character have to be human? (Maybe you’re writing a fantasy story, or a space opera.) You could have a whole species of glass cannons. Maybe they’re physically frail but venomous. Snakes and spiders come to mind.

    Does the character have a good reason to not be conditioned? Maybe they’re a spy in deep cover who can’t afford to look physically fit. Maybe they’re recovering from a serious illness – their fitness has suffered, but their skills remain. Maybe they’re a boxer with a ‘glass jaw’ who has to compensate by knocking the opponent out first.

    In the end, most archetypes can be written successfully – we just need a good justification.

    1. It does. It’s not inaccurate though. You can absolutely have characters who are relevant, without requiring them to be physically violent. Being able to ensure violence isn’t an option can be just as useful, or more so, than having a character who specializes in direct confrontation.

      1. Thank you. This is making me wonder about the relevance of characters, now. This was likely not what the asker intended, certainly, but the question brings something to mind.

        In an RPG with a party system, it’s usually the protagonist who does the talking (if ever) and the other characters are measured by their combat usefulness. Even the non-damage dealers. Healers heal during combat, ‘shamans’ inflict buffs and debuffs, et cetera. In a tabletop RPG, though, a party’s strength lies in diversity of skills. (Usually. Depends on the campaign, really.)

        Where do books fall, though? The combat in books doesn’t have as much inherent satisfaction to the reader as it does in movies or games. It’s not visually stunning, not challenging. So it makes sense to have something else be the primary draw of your writing.

        It’s easy to write someone who kicks ass physically. (It’s much harder to write combat well, of course.) Breaking away from that mindset, though, and showing realistic consequences, as well as characters who solve problems through other means…

        1. I’ll tell you what I picked up from Exalted way back in the day: You need to make sure your characters have something to do during downtime. If you spec everyone for combat and only combat, every time your characters go back to town, half the players are going to be sitting around waiting for something to do.

          In a larger context, it’s sometimes worth considering that, at an abstract level, any conflict between characters works off the same rhythm. If you have two characters who are fighting, it doesn’t matter if they’re yelling, or physically violent, you’re still writing a conflict between them. In either case, you’re writing characters who are studying their opponent, looking for opportunities, and seeking to exploit them. The method is different, but the methodology isn’t.

          Also, arguably, a lot of writers have just as much trouble with non-violent conflict, as they do handling fight scenes. Just think about all of those stories where the hero is appealing to their opponent and actually gets their way, even when their argument wasn’t compelling.

          Fair warning: I’ll probably come back and do an article on this sometime later in the week.

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